David Antin. Some Questions about Modernism This essay first appeared in Occident, from the University of California, Berkeley no. viii, new series (Spring 1974). pp. 6-39.

“Pound was a provincial in the sense that he was always building The Five Foot Shelf of Classics, he just kept shoving different books into it. But the most profound sense in which he was provincial was his facility for combining ideas that would have been mutually irreconcilable if he really understood their implications. Anyone who in 1914 could combine the notion that “all arts aspire to the condition of music” with the first proposition of Imagism, which advocated “direct treatment of the ‘thing’” would have had to be either a fool or a provincial. The first notion promotes total abstraction. Music envy is the mark of the abstractionist. Almost all of the people who discussed music from the point of view of the other arts and aspired to its condition spoke of music as “an arrangement of tones,” which is something like saying that a human being is an arrangement of proteins; but it sounded like a wonderful idea if you were advocating a nonrepresentational art. The Imagist proposition advocates total commitment to representation. Mallarmé might have subscribed to the first position in the 1880s and Stendhal to the second in the 1830s, and there’s no simple and sensible way of combining them. But Pound shows he’s not a fool by the ingeniously absurd way in which he manages to reconcile them. He asserts what is usually taken as the fundamental modernist axiom: that it is the obligation of a modernist art to define its possible operations as the manipulation of the elements of what is taken to be its uniquely distinctive medium. So it follows for Pound that “music is an arrangement of tones, painting is an arrangement of colors and forms on a flat surface, sculpture is an arrangement of volumes in three dimensional space, and poetry is an arrangement of images.” It doesn’t take much insight to observe that the kind of art you get from the fundamental axiom depends upon how you define the medium and its proper elements and operations. It is even easier to see that Pound has not placed the action of poetry on a structurally equivalent plane with music. Tones in music are distinctive and totally nonreferential—we would now probably say phonemic—while images are nothing if they are not referential or representational. This puts Pound in the position of advocating a modernist organization of quite traditionally representational linguistic elements for poetry while appearing to advocate much more radical possibilities for painting and sculpture and believing that he was a thoroughgoing modernist across the board. That’s what I mean when I say he’s provincial, his failure to understand the meaning of his commitments. But in terms of “modernism” he was too far from the action to know where the battle was, he was just standing in the way of the shrapnel. Gertrude Stein was our only pure modernist.”“

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